Books and movies

As I have wanted to do from the moment I saw the preview for it several weeks ago, I went to see “Saving Mr. Banks” in the theater today. I packed my pockets with tissues before I left the house, and wisely so.

Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney, charmingly but relentlessly attempting to persuade Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) to sign over the movie rights to him. The two have been in fruitless negotiations for said rights for 20 years and, in 1961, Travers (who insists that everyone call her “Mrs. Travers” even though the movie hints that she is not actually married to anyone) flies from London to Los Angeles to hash out the details with Disney’s creative team. Hilarity does not ensue. Travers is one of the most thoroughly ungrateful, ungracious, tactless, heartless people you’ll ever see. She finds fault with every single thing the Disney team does or proposes. It is to their everlasting credit as ladies and gentlemen that not one them ever loses his or her temper on this hateful woman.

The movie is clever in how it weaves together the story of Travers’ somewhat turbulent childhood in rural Australia with a wildly charming but uncontrollably alcoholic father and a stern aunt who comes “to take care of everything” and the story she later wrote about a magical nanny who arrives one day “with the East wind” to care for four English children whose father (Mr. Banks) works hard and isn’t around much. Disney, too, had a difficult childhood working hard for his own father, who didn’t hesitate to enforce discipline with the buckle end of his belt.

After two weeks of acrimonious story conferences following which Travers throws the rights contract on Disney’s desk unsigned and flies back to England in disgust, Disney looks into her family background and finally realizes that the reason Travers won’t collaborate with his team or allow the movie treatment to develop or progress is that she is holding on to her own story of a father who let her down, who didn’t come through for her as he promised he would. Disney gets on the next flight to London after Travers’ and arrives unannounced on her doorstep the next day. He promises her that he will not disappoint her, and that he will make a movie that will redeem her father. “Isn’t it time to let it all go?” he asks her. “Don’t you want to finish the story?” Cue the tissues.

Nobody can move me from the silver screen like Tom Hanks. Watching him deliver a monologue about fathers who love their kids but don’t know how to show it, about offering them forgiveness and honoring what they were rather than condemning them for what they were not, and about remaking the world as we want it to be with the power of the stories we tell, I soaked every one of those damned tissues. I know already that I’m going to buy this movie the minute it is available on Blu-Ray just to watch that one scene until I have it memorized.

Considering how passionately the grownups in the movie praised the book Mary Poppins, and how much they said their kids absolutely adored it, I figured it had to be worth my time to read (I probably saw the original movie as a child and didn’t think much of it, I guess, although the few clips they showed in “Saving Mr. Banks” made it look pretty cute so I might watch it again someday).

The always-charming Julie Andrews in the original "Mary Poppins."

The always-charming Julie Andrews in the original “Mary Poppins.”

I downloaded the book to my Kindle tonight and started right in. After just a few chapters, I tossed it away in disgust. What a stupid story. Mary Poppins is blunt, sarcastic, short-tempered and brusque, just like Travers in the movie, and is maddeningly uncommunicative when her charges ask her even the simplest questions. The stories she tells and the adventures she has read like bad drug trips. It’s not a long book, but I doubt I’ll ever finish it. It’s hard to imagine what Walt Disney ever saw in it that made him pursue Travers for the rights to it for more than two decades. Being Disney, he made a movie that was infinitely better than his source material. It would have to be.

Bottom line: Watch the movie, skip the book.


Another movie I have really enjoyed somewhat recently (because I’m very, very late to the party) is “Les Misérables.” It’s based on the book by Victor Hugo, which I got on the Kindle last summer. I am nothing if not a speedy reader, but it took me more than five months of disciplined application to slog my way through it.

The first 15 chapters of the book are devoted exclusively to the history, character and charitable works of the Bishop of Digne, the cleric who saves Jean Valjean’s life as well as his soul and who appears near the beginning of the movie for all of about five minutes and at the very end for just a moment. There are thousand-page (or so it seems) digressions on, among other things, the Battle of Waterloo with every key player and geographic feature of the battlefield named, the history of architecture in Paris, and the structure of the Parisian sewers in excruciating detail. The back story on the key characters is fleshed out so far I felt as if every one of them was an old friend by the end, and it turns out that they’re all far more closely related to one another than the movie has time to explain. Jean Valjean’s suffering, Fantine’s degradation, Javert’s obsession, the Thénardiers’ viciousness, and Marius and Cosette’s romance are all fully, richly expounded upon to the very last detail. Not a word is spared.

After reading that massive tome (which I’m grateful I did not buy in hard copy because the weight of it would have crushed me every time I fell asleep reading it), I am enormously impressed by how the movie compresses every key piece of this seemingly interminable tale into a mere 158 minutes with only a few key subplots glossed over or ignored entirely. It’s not a happy story, by any means, but it is exceptionally well told. In fact, the movie is a masterpiece of streamlined narration. And the songs are catchy, too.

Bottom line: Watch the movie, skip the book unless you’re prepared to invest about six months of your life in getting to the end of it.


Books I liked as well as the movie include Atonement, Into the Wild and Anna Karenina. All are excellent in either medium.

Movies I liked better than their books include “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Phantom of the Opera.” The first book was far too long, the other rather too short, but the movies were both terrific.

Books I liked better than their movies include Julie & Julia, Eat Pray Love, The Hunger Games series and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. The movies left out too much that made the books so entertaining.

Anyway, that’s my short list. Anyone have any suggestions for great books I should read or great movies I should see?



The magic of the mouse

I had dinner with a good friend of mine last night, and she filled me in on her plans for Christmas that are so cool and so fun and so exciting, I want to tell you all about them!

She and her husband have two kids, a preschooler and a toddler. For the past several months, both kids have been periodically asking, “when are we going to Mickey’s house?” meaning Disneyland. They are both big, big fans of the mouse.

So what my friend and her family are going to do on Christmas morning this year is get up early and open their presents (which might include a Mickey-themed item or two), then have breakfast (which might be Mickey-shaped pancakes), while the parents gently and subtly cue the kids until one or the other of them asks for the thousandth time, “when are we going to Mickey’s house?”

And then Mom and Dad are going to exchange a triumphant glance over the tops of their children’s heads before gleefully asking, “how about right now? Go get packed, we’re going today!” And at 2:00 that afternoon, the whole family will board a plane headed to Anaheim and visit with Mickey for a week.


I tell you what, I think that’s such a cool plan, I’m as stoked about it as if I were one of their kids. What could be better for a young child than to have a long-delayed dream instantly manifest one day? That is parenting at its finest, and my hat is off to my friend and her husband for planning this wonderful surprise and gift for their family.

Since I (ahem) won’t be going along, I might instead catch an early showing of the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” opening Dec. 20, which stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It looks like a delightful tour de force from two of the finest actors on the screen today. So, you know, that’s almost as good as a surprise trip to Disneyland on Christmas morning. Almost. 😉

Take a look at the trailer. I bet you’ll want to see this movie, too.

Dreaming the dream

In the inelegantly (and, in my opinion, rather misleadingly) titled Huffington Post article “6 Ugly Truths You Need To Accept To Pull Yourself Out Of A Rut,” columnist Leigh Newman asserts that “you have already dreamed the dream” of what you want to do with your life:

From what I have seen in life, I don’t think we need to go looking for some new “mystery” dream. The most important ones we’ve already had. Sure, at a very young age the idea of being a sea captain or ballet dancer occurred to us. But at an older, wiser age, we thought, “I should own a bookstore!” or “I love jam so much I should make it” or “Wouldn’t it be fun to be a tour guide in Italy?” We just failed to tie our lives to it. We let it float off, where it eventually ran out of air, sank and got buried by 1,000 other more practical or less scary or far less specific dreams.

It feels a little horrible to confront the truth that you knew what you wanted to do (even for .04 seconds) and didn’t do it. … Looking for [your dream] becomes like looking for a missing house key while still at home; there’s no need to panic. You just have to find what’s already there.

I have dreamed a lot of different dreams in my life, from being a physical therapist (in high school) to being a photographer for National Geographic (in college) to being a stay-at-home wife and mother (since, well, always). None of these dreams has panned out, obviously. I am a single work-from-home photographer, domestic engineer and dog mom, which is not quite the same thing.

At any rate, I went to see the movie “Jobs” today, which is set mostly in California’s Silicon Valley. The shots of the grounds of the Apple campus in Cupertino, in particular, roused a primal longing in me to smell the summer air in California, the state where both my parents hail from and where I spent a lot of time in my youth and early career. There’s just something about California that is, to me, different and special and yet achingly familiar. When I came home from the movie, I sat down and, thinking about old dreams, made a quick list of towns and cities there that have captured my imagination at one time or another as someplace I might like to live. Roughly north to south, they are:

  • Mt. Shasta
  • St. Helena
  • Calistoga
  • Sausalito
  • Palo Alto
  • Menlo Park
  • San Mateo
  • Santa Cruz
  • Monterey
  • Santa Barbara
  • Pasadena

My first job out of college took me to the far northern corner of the Golden State, and since I had been there many, many times as a car passenger but never as a car driver, I did what any smart young woman on her own would do and went right down to the AAA office to get myself a state map. That 1985 version, creased and cracked, is still in the side pocket of the passenger door of my car, so I pulled it out this afternoon to have another look.

Wouldn’t you know it … all those years ago, I took what appears to be a pink ballpoint pen and circled some of those very same city names.


Click image for a larger version.

Memory does not serve as to why I circled San Gregorio and Montara; those places mean nothing to me now. I have family in Half Moon Bay and Oakland, and used to have family in San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto and elsewhere in the area. It’s like a familiar foreign land to me, exotic and intoxicating and a little scary but fascinating just the same. (And for those of you who actually do live there, please don’t laugh at me. I’m serious!)

One thing that all the places on the list I made today have in common is crazy, outrageous, obscene, damn-near unbearable cost of living. What can I say? I have always had the very best of tastes regardless of my budget. 😉 So right this minute, none of them feels like a viable destination for me any time soon.

I am going to continue seeking that dream that is in me somewhere, the one that perhaps flickered to life for a moment last week or last year or half my lifetime ago and just as quickly flickered out or was simply hidden by more immediate and pressing concerns. There’s just no way to know where it might take me once I find it.

Life of animals

The dogs and I watched “Life of Pi” tonight, a movie about a 16-year-old Indian boy on a ship full of zoo animals that sinks in a storm who ends up on a lifeboat with, among other animals, an adult Bengal tiger.


Read the plot summary or watch the trailer if you haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s quite a visual tour de force, and an amazingly beautiful adaptation of the book, which I read several years ago.

I don’t recall the book being anything more than an entertaining yarn, not especially profound or disturbing, although certainly thought-provoking. The film, on the other hand, pretty much ripped my heart out. Not for the boy or the loss of his family or any other human emotion or suffering portrayed, but for the animals. I almost couldn’t make it through, and wouldn’t have if I hadn’t read the book and known how things turned out.

Pi’s father, a zookeeper, warns him when he is young that it is a mistake to consider any animal his friend, and that when one looks into an animal’s eyes, one sees only one’s own emotions reflected back, nothing more. But as the shipwreck scene unfolded followed by the swift establishment of dominance and savagery among the animals on the lifeboat, I wrapped my arms around both my dogs and tried without success to fight back tears every time an animal suffered—including the hapless rat who became a snack for the tiger.

A crippled zebra, a mournful orangutan separated from her baby, a frightened tiger stuck in the water, even a seasick hyena all compelled my sympathy to a far greater degree than the boy himself. Funny how that is. Perhaps I’ve become so jaded from watching people suffer in the movies that it can’t touch me anymore. But watching an animal suffer always makes me cry. Because when I look in their eyes, I see my own two little dogs, and my heart goes out to them. Every animal, every time.

I can’t say whether animals have souls as we do, but I know they have consciousness and intelligence as we do, and that some can form powerful bonds with their own kind as well as with other species, including us. Sometimes, actually, I think they bond with one another and with us more easily than we humans do with one another. And when they bond, they do so authentically and in many cases, permanently. That’s another thing we humans have trouble with.

I have an exceptional regard for the life of animals. Not more than for the life of people, but close. Very close.

Alone in the dark

The world of journalism, of movies, of words and writing and lyrical prose lost one of its very best yesterday. Others have memorialized Roger Ebert better than I ever could, but I will say that he was a personal hero of mine and I will miss his writing tremendously.

In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize–winning movie critic


He was also an author, a memoirist, a blogger and, perhaps best of all, a good man who made a happy marriage of 20 years. He had intelligence, wit, energy, integrity, grace and charm.

His passing leaves us all watching the movies alone in the dark.


Roger Joseph Ebert, June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013.

Rest in peace, Roger.

One bite at a time

I recently watched an interesting documentary called Vegucated that followed a group of three people who accepted the filmmaker’s challenge to go vegan for six weeks. I have seen similar films, such as Food Inc. and Forks Over Knives, both of which are excellent. I’ve heard of another one called Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, but haven’t had a chance to watch that yet. All advocate a plant-based diet not only in the interests of improving one’s own health, but also to help improve the health of our planet that is being relentlessly deforested, overgrazed, over-fished, over-harvested and polluted to provide human beings with cheap animal protein.

I do understand, too, that all animal-sourced foods are the result of sometimes unimaginably cruel practices, both on the farms and in the slaughterhouses. Even milk and egg production requires the animals to suffer. Most eggs come from battery hens with their beaks cut off stuffed into cages too small to allow them even to turn around, and most milk comes from cows that are continuously kept pregnant and that must watch their newborn calves be torn away from them year after year after year. When you see the footage of these animals struggling and screaming and dying in fear and pain, how can it not break your heart? And yet, like most of us, I suspect, I go to my local clean, brightly lit supermarket every week to buy these products in their tidy packages and I choose to ignore or simply forget what a horrible price the animals had to pay so that I can buy them so cheaply.

I can imagine giving up red meat and fish rather easily, chicken with somewhat more difficulty, but eggs, butter and cheese are the foundations of my diet. I have two eggs for breakfast nearly every single morning. On a rare day I’ll have a bowl of oatmeal instead, but I always regret that in about an hour.

Since I was feeling adventurous at the supermarket tonight, I decided to try a few vegan foods just to see what’s out there. I already have some almond milk in the fridge that I bought the other day, and I like that a lot on my Cheerios (which, by the way, I never eat for breakfast but do occasionally enjoy as an afternoon snack).

I picked up some vegan alternatives to chicken sausage, cheese, butter and yogurt.


Chicken Sausage: This product, which is wheat and potato based, has a slightly dry texture, but otherwise is a close approximation of meat and has a good flavor. Even the dogs liked it. I give it 4/5 stars and would buy it again for a specific recipe but probably wouldn’t pick it up just to eat.


Cheese: This is really good, both in flavor and texture. It even melts like cheese. I give it 5/5 stars and would buy it again.


Buttery Spread: This is the most pleasant surprise–I put some on a toasted English muffin and could not even tell the difference from real butter. Definitely 5/5 stars and this might be my new spread from now on.


Coconut Yogurt: This is supposed to be like yogurt, I think, but it has a runny consistency that I found quite unpleasant. And even though it is sweetened with cane sugar, it has a tang of artificial sweetener (to which I am exceptionally sensitive). Only 2/5 stars and will not buy again.

Going vegan is not for wimps–it takes a lot of imagination to eat well and creatively without animal products when that’s all you’ve ever known. It’s also more expensive if you choose manufactured alternatives to meat, cheese and so forth. For example, I paid $2.38 for a pound of butter (32 servings) and $5.79 for the tub of buttery spread (30 servings). Also, alternative foods seem to come in smaller packages but with a lot more packaging material than the equivalent animal food. And of course, there just is no vegan equivalent to a fried egg.

Really, though, it shouldn’t be so much about replacing animal-based foods with complex artificial concoctions that masquerade as those same foods, but rather about making healthier food choices altogether, starting with more leafy green vegetables and fresh fruit. I am very bad about getting enough of these two food groups because they don’t keep well, and I tend to not want to eat the same thing every day until it’s gone (unless it’s eggs and cheese, of course). I don’t even buy bananas anymore because I got tired of watching bunch after bunch after bunch turn brown and rot on my counter before I was interested in eating them.

I’m not sure 100% veganism is the lifestyle for me, but right now I am willing to replace my milk and butter with vegan alternatives, and that’s a good first step. I can probably find a farm stand somewhere in town that sells humanely sourced eggs. I definitely can give up eating meat–that would be the easiest part, actually.

One bite at a time, I can make a difference.

"Do it for me."

“Do it for me.”

Veganism is about nonviolence. It is about not engaging in harm to other sentient beings, to oneself, and to the environment upon which all beings depend for life.
~ Gary L. Francione

Doomed to repeat it?

I just finished watching the Ken Burns documentary “The Dust Bowl,” which tells the same story as Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a book I read a couple of weeks ago to help me put today’s economic woes in perspective.


“Fleeing a dust storm.” Farmer Arthur Coble and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimmaron County, Oklahoma. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, April, 1936. (Library of Congress)

Boy, I don’t know from suffering. I might as well be in the 1%, I am so exceedingly pampered compared to those poor souls in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Kansas (primarily) who struggled and suffered through the “dirty thirties” of heat, drought and blowing dust that killed their crops, their stock, and even their children. It was the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, that started with the plowing up of the buffalo grass on the southern High Plains to plant wheat all through the roaring ’20s when wheat prices were at record highs. When wheat prices crashed, the Great Depression began and the rains stopped, millions of acres of dry land were abandoned and left empty, with nothing on it to keep it from rising up and blowing away by the hundreds of thousands of tons.

Large sections of the High Plains have since recovered from these ravages, but industrial agriculture has returned there with a vengeance thanks to irrigation with water drawn up from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being rapidly depleted in order to grow hog and cattle feed. They say in 20 years, there will be no natural source of drinking water left in the central states if withdrawal continues at the present rate. Total desertification of the High Plains and another dust bowl could happen again within a generation.

“The Dust Bowl” makes the point that pursuing a quick profit today without a care for the costs to be borne tomorrow, especially by the planet on which we live, leads to disaster. We did it to our country once, and it’s likely we will do it again because as long as there is easy money to be made from plundering natural resources, we will do it. That is the American way.

I hope the human race can turn the corner before it’s too late and realize that we don’t have anywhere else to go, anywhere else to live. If we use up all the clean air and water and cut down all the trees and poison all the oceans, where will we live? We must find both the will and the means to put the welfare of our planet above the drive for profit. There are no jobs on a dead planet.

Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.
~ George Santayana